To Die For (1995)

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*. Yes, Nicole Kidman is great in a plum role. It’s hard to believe Meg Ryan, or any actress, would have turned it down. But I want to focus on the script.
*. It’s not very original. It’s based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, which was in turn based on the Pamela Smart story. But even if you didn’t know these sources you likely wouldn’t find it very suspenseful. Suzanne is a pretty conventional femme fatale, and despite the swift glibness of the mock-documentary presentation it’s clear we’re dealing with a very conventional noir plot. Femme fatales had been seducing boyfriends into helping them get rid of unsuitable husbands since the 1940s. Nothing new there. And hell, we already know Jimmy’s in prison and we’ve seen poor dumb Larry lying dead on the floor.
*. This wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Suzanne as a contemporary type of the narcissistic, media-manipulative femme fatale either. Wouldn’t we meet her again in Gone Girl?
*. Still, I really like the writing, though I’m not sure if the parts I like the most come from screenwriter Buck Henry (that’s him playing Mr. Finlaysson) or Maynard’s novel (which I haven’t read).
*. In the first place, Suzanne Stone is a finely drawn character. I say that because she’s not a genius, but not a total moron either, which is a hard spot to hit. It’s easy to write either someone very smart or very stupid; it’s harder to write someone with some intelligence who gives herself away in small things. Suzanne speaks in a mix-tape of pop culture clichés, very much the same vapid, borrowed language we’ll hear Louis Bloom using in Nightcrawler. But unlike Bloom, she tends to get them wrong in all sorts of minor ways. Yes there are a couple of howlers (” It’s nice to live in a country where life, liberty… and all the rest of it still stand for something.”), but overall you have to be paying pretty close attention to hear where she malaprops the lines. Give her a teleprompter to read from, however, and she’d probably do just fine (in his review, Roger Ebert says that “Suzanne is played by Kidman as a woman who is always onstage, and seems to be reading her dialogue from a TelePrompTer that scrolls up the insides of her eyeballs”).

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*. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Lydia and Russel are white trash, one step up the ladder from the trailer park, but Suzanne, despite her college education, isn’t many rungs above. Her dreams of going to NYC or L.A. and hitting the big time are just that. She’s done very well for herself landing the son of a local restaurateur with mob connections. And how we know this is from the words that come out of her mouth.
*. The other reason I really like the script is one particular scene that I have to introduce. Years ago I was watching an interview with Robert Towne where he was asked about the quality a great screenwriter had to have. He said (and I can’t quote him directly) that it involved a way of imagining the visual context for the lines on the page. He gave as his example the scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence is asked what it is about the desert that attracts him. Having been exposed to the sunlight and wide open spaces of Arabia, which the film makes a fetish of, he replies simply that “It’s clean.”
*. Fast forward to a junkyard in Little Hope, New Hampshire, where the three metalheads are discussing Suzanne. Just what does Jimmy see in her, Russel asks, aside from the fact that she has money and glossy nails? Jimmy says she’s “clean.”
*. Clean. Not rich or smart or pretty, but clean. Because in Jimmy’s life clean means something. And it’s a word that means more when you’re sitting in a junkyard, just like it did for Lawrence out in the middle of the desert.
*. I don’t know if Gus Van Sant, or Henry or Maynard, was thinking of that at the time. As allusions go it’s pretty subtle. Rather like Suzanne leaving her house to be met by the crowd of paparazzi. Does she need to say “I’m ready for my close-up”? No, but we can be pretty sure that’s the right line.
*. Hollywood has always hated TV, and I guess it’s had some reason, but it’s always hated rubes more. This is the side of the film that gets my back up a bit. Suzanne’s dreams are good — they are one version of the generic American dream — but she’s just a hick girl from Nowheresville, which means she doesn’t even measure up to the low-life execs she meets in Florida. Aspiring to rise above her (local cable) station is only going to lead to disaster. She needs to stick to that horrible townhouse with the vile wallpaper and thick carpets, and the husband waiting at home in his socks and wifebeater and pyjamas. Can the house be that cold? Whatever they’ve got the thermostat set at, that’s the real America for you! Love it, leave it, or die trying.

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*. And so this isn’t really a satire of television or the news industry, because Suzanne never makes it to the Promised Land. As vile as that place must be, Little Hope is worse.
*. Of all the people not to leave your car and wander off through the snowy woods with, you’d think David Cronenberg might be near the top of the list. Another example of how naive Suzanne is?
*. David Thomson has never made any secret of his crush on Nicole Kidman, but he has a point when he says this movie (or Van Sant) is too interested in the supporting cast. Matt Dillon adequately portrays one of the small town’s living dead, and while Joaquin Phoenix is convincing enough as Jimmy, there’s little for him to do but lie back and stroke (or be stroked). He also has most of the really bad lines in the script.
*. In other words, it’s a well-made, but pretty simple little movie, with nothing much to say that we didn’t already know. The presentation is very slick and interesting, but I wonder if it might have been even better in black-and-white. Suzanne seems diminished all done up as pretty poison. She might have made it with a more classic look.

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